Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Thursday, June 25, 2020

President George Q. Cannon, SITH intellectual

Jonathan Neville asserts that, until recently, only critics of the restored gospel claimed that Joseph Smith used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon. He calls this historical teaching SITH, an omninous-sounding ancronym for “stone in the hat.”

He considers this teaching “the latest LDS scholarly fad” and believes that “M2C* scholars and revisionist historians love SITH because it plays into their narrative that scholars are more important than prophets; i.e., Joseph [Smith] was an ignorant speculator.”

“Until recent years,” he wrote earlier this year, “it was only the critics of the Church who promoted SITH.”

He’s even established 2007 as the year when the “SITH” narrative supposedly became the standard narrative in Church settings:
From the beginning of the Restoration until 2007, Church leaders and members embraced the narrative that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery repeatedly set forth; i.e., that Joseph Smith translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

Now, we’re told that Joseph didn’t really use the plates or the Urim and Thummim. Instead, he just read words that appeared on a seer stone that he found in a well long before he got the plates. He would put the seer stone into a hat and read the words out loud to his scribe.
Neville’s assertion flies in the face the facts, though, for Joseph’s use of a seer stone has been taught by Church leaders and published in Church periodicals long before 2007. On this blog, I’ve mentioned Elder Russell M. Nelson (in 1993), Elder B. H. Roberts (in 1930), and numerous nineteenth- and twentieth-century Church periodicals, including The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star (e.g., vol. 43, no. 27; vol. 44, no. 6; and vol. 48, no. 25) and the Improvement Era (e.g., vol. 42, no. 10) have taught about Joseph’s use of a seer stone. Many private publications by Latter-day Saint leaders and historians have also discussed this historical fact.

But another, even older source from one of the most prominent leaders in Church history has recently come to my attention.

George Q. Cannon
George Q. Cannon was one of the most important general authorities of the Church in its nearly two hundred-year history. The Church Historian’s Press, publishers of the Joseph Smith Papers, tells us that, “Next to Brigham Young, [he] was arguably the best-known Latter-day Saint in the last half of the nineteenth century.”

Born in 1827 in Liverpool, England, Cannon’s family joined the Church in 1840 and immigrated to the United States. After arriving in Nauvoo in early 1843, Cannon lived with his aunt and uncle, Leonora Taylor and apostle John Taylor. He worked for his uncle in the printing office of the Times and Seasons and the Nauvoo Neighbor, where he became acquainted with the Prophet Joseph Smith.

After the Church’s relocation to the West, George Q. Cannon’s Church service included a mission to Hawaii and presiding over the California and Oregon Mission and, after that, the Eastern States Mission. He was called as an apostle and member of the Quorum of the Twelve in 1860 at age 33. He then presided over the Church’s European Mission, where he edited the Millennial Star. Later he became editor of the Deseret News and founded and edited The Juvenile Instructor magazine for young Latter-day Saints.

Cannon served as a counselor in the First Presidency four times: under Brigham Young (1873–1877), John Taylor (1880–1887), Wilford Woodruff (1889–1898), and Lorenzo Snow (1898–1901). He died six months before President Snow; had Cannon outlived Snow, he would have become the sixth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

President Cannon was truly one of the most faithful, believing, and devoted leaders of the Lord’s Church in its formative years. In 1882, President John Taylor blessed him that he would be “a mighty instrument to accomplish much good for Israel,” and he certainly fulfilled that blessing.

Among the books Cannon himself wrote was The Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, published by the Church’s Juvenile Instructor office in 1888 while Cannon was incarcerated at Utah Penitentiary for “unlawful cohabitation” (practicing plural marriage). This 512-page work is among the earliest biographies of Joseph Smith, written by someone who knew the Prophet personally and loved him deeply. It’s considered one of the classic works of Mormon literature, and is still available today through Deseret Book.

Chapter 8 of The Life of Joseph Smith is Cannon’s history of the Prophet Joseph’s first attempt to translate the Book of Mormon, with Martin Harris acting as his scribe. On pages 56–57, Cannon wrote:
The Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, by George Q. Cannon, pp. 56–57
One of Joseph’s aids in searching out the truths of the record [i.e., the plates given to him by Moroni] was a peculiar pebble or rock which he called also a seer stone, and which was sometimes used by him in lieu of the Urim and Thummim. This stone had been discovered to himself and his brother Hyrum at the bottom of a well; and under divine guidance they had brought it forth for use in the work of translation. Martin [Harris] determined to deprive the Prophet of this stone. He obtained a rock resembling a seer-stone in shape and color, and slily substituted it for the Prophet’s real medium of translation. When next they were to begin their labor, Joseph was at first silent; and then he exclaimed: “Martin, what is the matter? All is dark.”

Harris with shame confessed what he had attempted. And when the Prophet demanded a reason for such conduct, Martin replied: “I did it to either prove the utterance or stop the mouths of fools who have said to me that you had learned these sentences which you dictate and that you were merely repeating them from memory.”
When Martin Harris took the 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Lehi to show them to his family, Cannon wrote,
Because of Joseph’s wearying applications to God, the Urim and Thummim and seer stone were taken from him. (57)
After Martin lost the 116 pages, Cannon explained,
For his disobedient pertinacity in voicing to the Lord the request of Martin Harris Joseph had been deprived of the Urim and Thummim and seer stone; but this was not his only punishment. … The plates themselves were taken from him by the angel of the record. (58)
If one is to believe Jonathan Neville, President George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency, one of the greatest leaders of the Church in its nearly two hundred-year history, was a “revisionist historian” who believed that “scholars are more important than prophets” and that Joseph Smith was “an ignorant speculator.” President Cannon was, according to Neville, a “critic of the Church who promoted SITH” and rejected the testimonies of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.

Clearly none of the statements in the preceding paragraph apply to George Q. Cannon. The sad truth is that it is Jonathan Neville who is ignorant of Church history and doctrine. It is Jonathan Neville who distorts the facts to suit his personal agenda. It is Jonathan Neville who is a critic of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and who is leading misinformed followers along a path that can only land them in apostasy.

Perhaps, one can only hope, Brother Neville will come to realize the false and dangerous path he is on and repent of his errors before it is too late.

—Peter Pan

ADDENDUM: Two additional copies of President Cannon’s book are on Archive.org, one of which was owned by Wilford Woodruff and the other (interestingly) by Joseph Fielding Smith.

* “M2C” is Jonathan Neville’s acronym for the theory that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica and that the hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon is not the same hill in New York where Joseph Smith received the plates of Mormon.


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